March 30, 2018 § Leave a comment

Holiday

Courthouse closed.

A Brief Word About Amendments

March 28, 2018 § 5 Comments

This from footnote 6 to the COA’s opinion in Alexander v. Pitts, decided November 14, 2017:

“If a party fails to seek leave of court or permission of the opposing party prior to amending pleadings, such amendment is improper and will be struck.” D.P. Holmes Trucking, LLC v. Butler, 94 So.2d 248, 255 (¶20)(Miss. 2012).

MRCP 15(a) could not be clearer. Here are the only ways to amend your pleadings:

  1. If no responsive pleading has been filed, you may amend at any time, subject to 2, below;
  2. If no responsive pleading is permitted (see below), and the action has not been placed on the trial calendar, you may amend at any time within thirty days after it is served;
  3. If a R12(b)(6) motion is granted against you, you may amend if the court grants you leave to do so, and subject to the conditions imposed by the court;
  4. In the course of a trial you may ask the court to amend the pleadings to conform to the proof, if you follow the procedure spelled out in R15(b);
  5. If none of the above apply, the only way you can amend only by leave of court or upon written consent consent of the adverse party.

If you don’t follow the procedures above, you are running the risk that the other party will ask at the most inopportune time to dismiss the very pleading that you thought you had shown up to try and into which you had invested all your preparation time. And — worse — if the judge shrugs off the other side’s objection and lets you go on for two or three days, you stand to have to do a re-do after the COA reverses and remands.

Moral of the story: Read R15 and follow the amendment procedures exactly.

A query and a comment: Does anyone know what sort of pleading is one to which “no responsive pleading is permitted,” as mentioned in R15(a)? R81(d)(4) talks about answers not being required in certain chancery matters, unless ordered by the court. I am not aware of any proceeding in which no responsive pleading is permitted.

… And More on R41(b) Dismissal

March 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Only yesterday we visited the notion of an MRCP 41(b) dismissal in a trial without a jury. The point there was that the motion is one to dismiss, not for a directed verdict.

Today we study the standard that the trial court is to apply in deciding how to rule on the motion.

In In the Matter of the Dissolution of the Marriage of Lewis, decided by the COA on March 20, 2018, Judge Wilson expounded on the topic:

¶13. In a bench trial, after the plaintiff “has completed the presentation of his evidence, the defendant . . . may move for a dismissal on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief.” M.R.C.P. 41(b). A motion for involuntary dismissal under Rule 41(b) is different from a motion for a directed verdict, which is made only in a jury trial. Ladner v. Stone Cty., 938 So. 2d 270, 273 (¶9) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006). “This distinction must be understood, because the standard of review for a dismissal is different than that for a directed verdict.” Id.

¶14. In ruling on a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss, “[t]he judge must consider the evidence fairly, rather than in the light most favorable to the plaintiff,” as would be the case on a motion for a directed verdict or a motion for summary judgment. Century 21 Deep S. Props. Ltd. v. Corson, 612 So. 2d 359, 369 (Miss. 1992) (emphasis added). That is, the trial judge should give the plaintiff’s evidence only “such weight and credibility as he would ascribe to it if he were making findings of fact and rendering final judgment.” Gray v. Alumax Extrusions Inc., 477 So. 2d 1355, 1356-57 (Miss. 1985). If the judge “would find for the defendant” on the evidence presented, “the case should be dismissed.” Corson, 612 So. 2d at 369. “[T]he motion should be granted if the plaintiff has failed to prove one or more essential elements of his claim or if the quality of the proof offered is insufficient to sustain the plaintiff’s burden of proof.” Buelow v. Glidewell, 757 So. 2d 216, 220 (¶12) (Miss. 2000). “The court must deny a motion to dismiss only if the judge would be obliged to find for the plaintiff if the plaintiff’s evidence were all the evidence offered in the case.” Corson, 612 So. 2d at 369 (emphasis added).

¶15. “This Court applies the substantial evidence/manifest error standards to an appeal of a grant or denial of a motion to dismiss pursuant to [Rule] 41(b).” Id. The trial judge’s “decision on the motion is, for purposes of appeal, treated like any other finding of fact. In other words, his decision will not be disturbed on appeal unless it was manifestly wrong.” Gray, 477 So. 2d at 1357.

Applying the law to the case at hand:

¶16. “The chancellor’s findings of fact about cohabitation [and] de facto marriage . . . are entitled to substantial deference when reviewed on appeal.” Hughes v. Hughes, 186 So. 3d 394, 397 (¶6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016) (quoting McMinn v. McMinn, 171 So. 3d 511, 518 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014)). “We will not reverse a chancellor’s findings regarding the existence or nonexistence of a de facto marriage unless they are manifestly or clearly erroneous.” Id. at 403 (¶26) (citing Burrus v. Burrus, 962 So. 2d 618, 621 (¶15) (Miss. Ct. App. 2006)).

We’ll look at the concept of de facto marriage in a later post. At this point it’s important to bear in mind the standard you need to argue to convince the chancellor to grant — or deny — that 41(b) motion.

No Directed Verdict in Chancery Unless it is a Jury Trial

March 26, 2018 § Leave a comment

Sheila Jones George filed a contempt action against her ex, Mike Jones, charging that he had failed to comply with their divorce judgment. After Sheila rested, Mike’s attorney addressed the court: “Your honor, we would make a motion for a directed verdict, this case be dismissed as not meeting the burden of proof of contempt.” The chancellor did dismiss Sheila’s contempt claim, and she appealed.

In the case of George v. Jones, decided March 6, 2018, the COA reversed and remanded. Judge Griffis explained the difference between a motion for an involuntary dismissal and a motion for a directed verdict, and how invoking the wrong procedure produces error:

¶15. … [W]e note that when Sheila rested her case-in-chief, Mike’s attorney made a motion for “directed verdict.” In a bench trial, the proper motion to be made at this time is a motion for involuntary dismissal under Rule 41(b) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 41(b) is the authority for an involuntary dismissal, and it provides:

After the plaintiff, in an action tried by the court without a jury, has completed the presentation of his evidence, the defendant, without waiving his right to offer evidence in the event the motion is not granted, may move for a dismissal on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. The court may then render judgment against the plaintiff or may decline to render any judgment until the close of all the evidence.

Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a) is the authority for a directed verdict; it is properly made at a jury trial.

¶16. In Crowell v. Butts, 153 So. 3d 684, 687 (¶6) (Miss. 2014), the supreme court ruled:

A motion for directed verdict granted by the court, sitting without a jury, is procedurally a dismissal on the merits under [Rule] 41(b). This Court reviews a grant or denial of a Rule 41(b) motion to dismiss under the substantial evidence/manifest error standard. In considering a motion to dismiss, the trial judge should consider the evidence fairly, as distinguished from in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, and should dismiss the case if it would find for the movant. The court must deny a motion to dismiss only if the judge would be obliged to find for the plaintiff if the plaintiff’s evidence were all the evidence offered in the case. (Internal citations and quotation marks omitted). [Emphasis in this paragraph added]

When you move to dismiss per R41(b), the judge must “consider the evidence fairly” and dismiss if it would rule for the party moving to dismiss based on the proof presented to that point, even without hearing the other side’s proof.

In a jury trial, the court has to consider the evidence “in the light most favorable to the nonmovant” and dismiss if it would find for the movant.

The standard for the court to apply in ruling on either motion is different in a bench trial than it is in a jury trial. Thus, invoking the wrong procedure can lead the judge to apply the wrong standard, and thus lead to error.

If you are confused over the difference, just remember that judges ruling from the bench render judgments; juries render verdicts. A chancellor cannot direct a verdict unless there is a jury; a chancellor can, in a bench trial, dismiss a party’s pleading and render judgment in favor of the other party.

 

Reprise: Attorney’s Fees in Estates

March 23, 2018 § Leave a comment

Reprise replays posts from the past that you might find useful today.

HELPFUL HINTS FOR ATTORNEY’S FEES IN ESTATES

January 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you want to get paid in probate matters, you have got to give the judge the information he or she needs to make an award.

UCCR 6.12 says that you have to provide the court with all the information required in UCCR 6.11, and ” … the nature and effect thereof.” The information required in 6.11 is ” … the nature and extent of the service rendered and expense incurred … ” Fees may not be based on the value of any real property.

The factors that the court must consider in determining what is a reasonable attorney’s fee in an estate or probate matter are discussed in this earlier post.

I will not rule on attorney’s fees in a probate matter unless the attorney has given the interested parties notice of what the amount of fees requested is and what services were rendered. After all, the heirs, beneficiaries or ward are paying out of their own pockets, so they should have some say.

Here are some helpful hints to do it right:

  • Make an itemized statement showing the date you performed each service, the nature of the service, and the amount of time spent. An entry might read: 1-22-12   Preparation of Letters Testamentary   1/4 Hr.
  • If there is no dispute about your fee, either attach the itemized statement as an exhibit to your pleading to close the estate, or incorporate it into the pleading itself. That way, when the interested parties join in or sign it they are documenting that they agree with the fee. Include a statement to the effect that ” … based on the [itemized statement], petitioners agree that a reasonable fee is $ ______.”
  • If there is not agreement about the fee, spell out in the petition to close the estate that there is a dispute as to the fee, and set it for hearing.

If your fee is based on a contingent fee contract for wrongful death or some other claim of the estate, remember that UCCR 6.12 requires that your contract must be approved in advance, and that the ultimate award will be ” … such sum as will be reasonable compensation for the service rendered and expense incurred … ” Your claim for fees must set out (1) the total amount recovered, (2) the nature and extent of the service rendered and expense incurred by the attorney, and (3) the amount, if any, offered to settle before the attorney was hired.

To get an idea of the breadth of the chancellor’s discretion in awarding attorney’s fees in an estate, read In re Estate of McCullough, 58 So.3d 701 (Miss. App. 2009) in which the COA upheld the chancellor’s award of only $36,660 where the attorney had sought $88,550. A similar result was upheld in Barnes, Broom, Dallas & McCleod, PLLC v. Estate of Cappaert, 991 So.2d 1209, 1213 (Miss. App. 2008).

Attorney’s fees are the personal obligation of the fiduciary, but where the attorney’s services have benefited the estate, the fees may be paid out of the estate; conversely, if the attorney’s services have not benefited the estate, the estate should not have to bear the expense. Estate of Collins v. Collins, 742 So.2d 147, 148 (Miss.App. 1999).

Navigating the New World of Venue in Divorces

March 21, 2018 § 1 Comment

As far back as the days when dinosaurs roamed the Jackson prairie, the rule in Mississippi was that divorce venue as spelled out in MCA 93-5-11 conferred subject matter jurisdiction, and, thus, could not be waived or conferred by consent.

Fast forward to the days when Wal-Mart roamed the area, and the rule changed. In Lewis v. Pagel, decided last June, the MSSC reversed ancient precedent and held that subject-matter jurisdiction was conferred not by statute, but by the Mississippi Constitution. The statute, the court held,  governs venue and controls the court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant.

I posted about Lewis at this link. I urged readers to “stay tuned” to see how the court’s ruling plays out.

Well, as it turns out, we now have a case that applies Lewis. In Ridgeway v. Hooker, decided February 15, 2018, Patrick Ridgeway appealed from the chancery court’s denial of his R60(b)(6) motion for relief from judgment based on his argument that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to grant a divorce between him and his ex-wife, Louise Hooker. Here is how Justice Kitchens’s opinion addressed Patrick’s argument:

¶21. Mississippi Code Section 93-5-2(1) provides:

Divorce from the bonds of matrimony may be granted on the ground of irreconcilable differences, but only upon the joint complaint of the husband and wife or a complaint where the defendant has been personally served with process or where the defendant has entered an appearance by written waiver of process.

Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(1) (Rev. 2013). Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4) allows a court to “relieve a party . . . from a final judgment” if “the judgment is void . . . .” Ridgeway argues that the chancery court lacked subject-matter and personal jurisdiction because the complaint he filed was not a joint complaint, he never served the complaint on Hooker, and Hooker never entered an appearance by written waiver.

¶22. “Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of the court to hear and determine cases in the general class to which the particular case belongs.” In re Estate of Kelly, 951 So. 2d 543, 548 (Miss. 2007) (citing Case v. Case, 246 Miss. 750, 758, 150 So. 2d 148 (1963)). “Subject matter  jurisdiction is conveyed by the Mississippi Constitution.” Lewis v. Pagel, 2017 WL 2377690, *6 (Miss. June 1, 2017). “Section 159 of the Mississippi Constitution vests subject matter jurisdiction in the chancery courts over divorce proceedings.” Id. at *6 (citing Miss.
Const. art. 6, § 159 (“The chancery court shall have full jurisdiction in the following matters and cases, viz.: . . . (b) Divorce and alimony . . . .”)).

¶23. It is true, as Ridgeway argues, that “the defense of lack of subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived.” Stuart v. Univ. of Miss. Med. Ctr., 21 So. 3d 544, 548-49 (Miss. 2009) (citing Capron v. Van Noorden, 2 Cranch 126, 6 U.S. 126, 127, 2 L. Ed. 229 (1804) (“[I]t was the duty of the Court to see that [it] had jurisdiction, for the consent of the parties could not give it.”)). But this Court recently overruled cases holding that the venue requirements of Mississippi Code Section 93-5-11 (Rev. 2013) [Fn 1] “could not be waived as it vested subject matter jurisdiction over divorce actions in the chancery court.” Lewis, 2017 WL 2377690, at *6. This Court overruled “these past cases to the extent that they hold that Section 93-5-11 confers subject-matter jurisdiction on chancery courts.” Id. Instead, the Court held that, while the Mississippi Constitution confers subject-matter jurisdiction,“Section 93-5-11 governs the venue of a divorce action and limits the chancery court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant,” and the “Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure control the procedure to be utilized when venue is improper.” Id.

[Fn 1] Mississippi Code Section 93-5-11 governs proper venue for divorce actions:

All complaints, except those based solely on the ground of irreconcilable differences, must be filed in the county in which the plaintiff resides, if the defendant be a nonresident of this state, or be absent, so that process cannot be served; and the manner of making such parties defendants so as to authorize a judgment against them in other chancery cases, shall be observed. If the defendant be a resident of this state, the complaint shall be filed in the county in which such defendant resides or may be found at the time, or in the county of the residence of the parties at the time of separation, if the plaintiff be still a resident of such county when the suit is instituted.

A complaint for divorce based solely on the grounds of irreconcilable differences shall be filed in the county of residence of either party where both parties are residents of this state. If one (1) party is not a resident of this state, then the complaint shall be filed in the county where the resident party resides. Transfer of venue shall be governed by Rule 82(d) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.

Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-11 (Rev. 2013).

¶24. The chancery court has jurisdiction of divorce cases, including irreconcilable differences divorces. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 159. No case cited by Ridgeway stands for the proposition that the requirements of Section 93-5-2(1), if not strictly complied with, deprive the chancery court of subject-matter jurisdiction of an irreconcilable differences divorce. As in Lewis, Section 93-5-2(1) limits the chancery court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over the defendant, requiring a joint complaint and either personal service on the defendant or the defendant’s “entry of appearance by written waiver of process.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-5-2(1).

¶25. Personal jurisdiction “is an individual right that can be waived.” Pekin Ins. Co. v. Hinton, 192 So. 3d 966, 971 (Miss. 2016) (citing Ins. Corp. of Ireland v. Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee, 456 U.S. 694, 703, 102 S. Ct. 2099, 2105, 72 L. Ed. 2d 492 (1982)). More specifically, “[o]ne waives process and service . . . upon making a general appearance.” Isom v. Jernigan, 840 So. 2d 104, 107 (Miss. 2003). This Court held, in a case in which the defendant had “appeared by counsel and filed a plea to the jurisdiction of the court, which he later withdrew, and also filed cross-interrogatories to appellant in the taking of her deposition,” that “personal appearance by a defendant in a cause gives the court jurisdiction of his person as completely as if he had been personally served with process within this state.” Clay v. Clay, 134 Miss. 658, 99 So. 818, 819 (1924). The Mississippi Court of Appeals has held that, while actual service of process had not been issued, the signature of
the defendant and his attorney “under the caption, ‘Read, Agreed, and Approved’” constituted the defendant’s having made “a legal appearance in the matter.” James v. McMullen, 733 So. 2d 358, 360 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999).

¶26. Our Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure also contemplate waiver in this circumstance: “A defense of lack of jurisdiction over the person, . . . insufficiency of process, or insufficiency of service of process is waived (A) if omitted from a motion in the circumstances described in subdivision (g), [Fn 2] or (B) if it is neither made by a motion under this rule nor included in a responsive pleading or an amendment thereof . . . .” Miss. R. Civ. P. 12(h)(1). Ridgeway makes the statement in his brief that, “[a]ll know that where the [Irreconcilable Divorce Act] and, here, Rule 12 conflict, that the IDA governs.” But the converse is true. See Newell v. State, 308 So. 2d 71 (Miss. 1975) (Article 6, Section 144, of the Mississippi Constitution, which states that the State’s “‘judicial power . . . shall be vested in a Supreme Court and other courts as are provided for in this constitution.’ . . leaves no room for a division of authority between the judiciary and the legislature as to the power to
promulgate rules necessary to accomplish the judiciary’s constitutional purpose.”).

[Fn 2] Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 12(g) provides that “[a] party who makes a motion under this rule may join with it any other motions herein provided for and then available to him. . . .” Miss. R. Civ. P. 12(g).

¶27. Here, Ridgeway did not comply with Section 93-5-2(1) in filing a joint complaint, in serving the complaint on Hooker, or in obtaining Hooker’s appearance by written waiver. But Hooker never objected to a lack of jurisdiction, to insufficiency of process, or to insufficiency of service of process. She participated in discovery. She initialed every page of the agreement, signed the agreement, and signed the Judgment of Divorce – Irreconcilable Differences. Hooker’s voluntary appearance obviated the necessity of service of process and she consented to the chancery court’s jurisdiction. By failing to raise the defense of lack of personal jurisdiction, insufficiency of process, or insufficiency of service of process, Hooker waived those defenses pursuant to Rule 12(h)(1).

¶28. It was Ridgeway’s failure to comply with Section 93-5-2(1) which created the alleged jurisdictional defect. As the chancellor correctly observed, Ridgeway cannot complain now of an error of his own creation. This Court has held, an “‘[a]ppellant has no standing to seek
redress from [an] alleged error of his own creation.’” Caston v. State, 823 So. 2d 473, 494-95 (Miss. 2002) (quoting Evans v. State, 547 So. 2d 38, 40 (Miss. 1989)).

¶29. In Kolikas v. Kolikas, 821 So. 2d 874, 876 (Miss. Ct. App. 2002), the husband filed a complaint for divorce in Marshall County, Mississippi, but failed to provide notice to his nonresident wife. The chancery court granted the divorce to the husband, and the Mississippi
Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that “[t]he chancery court had not acquired personal jurisdiction over Ms. Kolikas due to lack of proper service of process based on the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure . . . .” Id. at 879-80. The appeals court held that “Mr.
Kolikas, in consultation with his attorney, chose what actions to take in pursuit of divorce” and that “[a]s such, it was his obligation, not that of Ms. Kolikas, to ensure that his actions complied with the appropriate statutes and court rules.” Id. at 879. The court continued: “He did not do so, and cannot place the blame for this failure on Ms. Kolikas.” Id. Similarly, Ridgeway cannot place the blame on Hooker for his own failure to comply with the appropriate statutes and court rules now that doing so, if he succeeded, would inure to his benefit.

¶30. Ridgeway relies on the case of Alexander v. Alexander, 493 So. 2d 978 (Miss. 1986), in support of his argument that “a divorce under the [Irreconcilable Differences Act] was void without some form of personal service or written waiver.” But in that case this Court held “the chancery court exceeded its authority in granting a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences” because there had been “no written agreement of the parties regarding their property rights as required by the statute.” Alexander, 493 So. 2d at 980. See Gallaspy v. Gallaspy, 459 So. 2d 283, 287 (Miss. 1987) (Robertson, J., specially concurring) (“The chancery court has no authority to grant a divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences unless the parties have reached agreement on all financial matters.”). Here, unlike in Alexander, the parties reached a “written agreement for the custody and maintenance of [the] children of [the] marriage and for the settlement of any property rights between the parties . . . .” in accordance with Section 93-5-2(2).

¶31. Accordingly, because the chancellor had subject-matter jurisdiction, because Hooker waived any objection to the exercise of personal jurisdiction, and because Ridgeway lacks standing to complain of an error of his own creation, we affirm.

Lots of nutritional value to digest here. We’ll explore it in greater detail in a future post. For now, rest easy in the understanding that personal jurisdiction, along with all of its ramifications, is what venue now is all about in Mississippi divorce.

 

Leave to Amend is not Automatic

March 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

Conventional wisdom has it that the court will freely grant leave to amend. While there is truth to that, it’s not always the case that you will be given leave to do so in every situation.

When the court grants a R12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, ” … leave to amend shall be granted in accordance with Rule 15(a).” R 15(a) states, in part, that ” … a party may amend a pleading only by leave of the court or upon written consent of the adverse party; leave shall be freely given when justice so requires.”

Cases construing R12(b)(6) have held that, once the motion is granted, the dismissed party must file a R15(a) motion asking leave to amend, attaching a proposed pleading, and giving the court enough information to make a finding that “justice so requires” the amendment.

Claire Flowers and Jane Paixao had filed contested pleadings in the estate of their mother. In the course of the proceedings the court granted a R12(b)(6) motion as to some of the issues they raised and as to certain parties. When they asked the court for leave to amend, the court denied their motion. Following a final judgment they appealed.

On the issue of the chancellor’s denial of the motion to amend, the COA affirmed. In the case of Flowers, et al. v. Estate of Flowers, decided February 6, 2018, Judge Carlton wrote the opinion that laid out the pertinent facts and rationale:

¶23. We next consider Claire and Jane’s contention that the chancellor erroneously denied Claire’s Rule 15(a) motion to amend her petition. The sisters argue that none of the various attorneys asserted they would suffer prejudice if the chancellor granted the motion to amend. We review the denial of a motion to amend for abuse of discretion. Crater v. Bank of New York Mellon, 203 So. 3d 16, 19 (¶7) (Miss. Ct. App. 2016).

¶24. As previously discussed, Claire filed an amended petition for compensatory and punitive damages in which she sought to assert claims of fraud and negligence per se against the attorneys who represented the interests of Brenda’s estate, the testamentary trust, and D.A.’s guardianship. Claire then filed a Rule 15(a) motion for leave to admit her amended petition. The specially appointed judge denied Claire’s motion for leave to admit and dismissed her claims against the attorneys, finding that Claire failed to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). The special judge also granted the attorneys’ motions to strike themselves as defendants due to Claire’s failure to obtain leave to join them under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 21.

¶25. Following the Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of her claims, Claire filed a motion for leave to amend her petition under Rule 15(a) to include claims against the attorneys and to allege “fraud and negligence per se with the correct specificity.” However, Claire’s motion for leave to amend failed to provide the substance of the amendment to inform the court of what facts or acts constituted the fraud or negligence per se. See M.R.C.P. 9(b) (providing that fraud must be pled with specificity); Faul v. Perlman, 104 So. 3d 148, 156 (¶26) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012) (discussing the elements a plaintiff must show to establish negligence per se). [Fn 7] The motion to amend instead contained only bare allegations and no facts from which to determine the existence of a cause of action.

[Fn 7] See also Price v. Price, 430 So. 2d 848, 849 (Miss. 1983) (“When a party proposes to amend his pleading, he should ordinarily make known to the trial court the substance of his proposed amendment.”).

¶26. One of the attorneys identified in Claire’s petition and amended petition filed a response that the other attorneys joined. In asking the court to deny Claire’s Rule 15(a) motion to amend, the attorneys noted that Claire had failed to “attach a proposed amended petition that would permit the [c]ourt to determine whether justice requires that leave to amend be granted.” The attorneys also noted they had been “dismissed as [respondents] . . . as a result of [Claire’s] failure to obtain leave of court to add [them] as [parties].” Furthermore, the attorneys contended that, even if the court granted Claire’s motion to amend, the amendments would not affect them because of their prior dismissal from the matter under Rule 21. As discussed, the record shows that Claire’s motion for leave to amend indeed failed to inform the chancellor of what facts or acts constituted fraud or negligence per se.

¶27. Where a trial court dismisses a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim, Rule 15(a) requires the trial court to freely give the plaintiff the opportunity to amend her complaints “when justice so requires.” M.R.C.P. 15(a). As previously discussed, we will affirm the chancellor’s decision “unless the discretion he used is found to be arbitrary and clearly erroneous.” Breeden v. Buchanan, 164 So. 3d 1057, 1064 (¶27) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (quoting Poole v. Avara, 908 So. 2d 716, 721 (¶8) (Miss. 2005)). In the present case, we have the benefit of the chancellor’s explanation since the record sets forth why he denied Claire’s Rule 15(a) motion to amend. See Breeden, 164 So. 3d at 1064 (¶¶28-31) (finding an abuse of discretion where a chancellor failed to explain his denial of the plaintiff’s Rule 15(a) motion). The specially appointed judge found that Claire had failed “to state how she would amend her prior pleadings or . . . to attach a proposed amended pleading [that] would allow the [c]ourt to determine whether justice required that she be given leave to file amended pleadings[.]”

¶28. The record here demonstrates that Claire failed to meet her burden to sufficiently support an amendment of her petition. Furthermore, the chancellor dismissed the attorneys from the litigation under Rule 21 because Claire failed to obtain the court’s leave to join them, and Claire filed no appeal of the attorneys’ dismissal. See Crater, 203 So. 3d at 21 (¶16) (finding no abuse of discretion in the denial of a Rule 15(a) motion to amend where the motion only asserted claims against a nonparty and the claims were futile). For these reasons, we find no abuse of discretion from the chancellor’s denial of Claire’s Rule 15(a) motion to amend. See id. at 19 (¶7). We therefore affirm the chancellor’s judgment with regard to this issue.

So:

  • It’s a good practice, whenever you need a court order to amend your pleadings, to attach a proposed pleading to the motion. That proposed pleading must state a claim sufficient to survive its own R12(b)(6) motion, or your motion to amend will be denied because justice does not require leave to amend to state an insufficient claim.
  • R21 joinder of parties requires leave of court. (And a reminder that there is a specific procedure to allow intervention per R24, as I have posted about here previously).
  • Conventional wisdom is better than no wisdom at all, I reckon; however, don’t let conventional wisdom substitute for your own thought processes or for reading (and following) the rules.

NOTE: The court reached a similar conclusion in a companion case about which I posted at this link.

Is a Law Degree a Good Idea in the 21st Century?

March 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

Philip Thomas at Mississippi Litigation Review & Commentary emphatically raises some serious questions. You can read his take at this link.

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

March 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

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When It’s Too late to Change Beneficiaries

March 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Annie Patterson owned an Alfa life insurance policy in the amount of $50,000 on the life of her nephew and ward, Christopher Nance. Annie was also the beneficiary. She named Christopher’s mother, Angela Nance, as contingent beneficiary. The policy included a provision that, “upon death of the owner, ownership and control of the policy … shall pass to the estate of the deceased owner.”

Annie died in April, 2013, and her father, C.D. Pulliam, attempted to make himself owner and beneficiary, along with his siblings. They submitted an affidavit to Alfa claiming to be Annie’s sole heirs. One of C.D.’s siblings also completed a “Change of Ownership” form that purported to make C.D. owner and primary beneficiary of the policy. C.D. claimed that Alfa produced the form and directed that it be signed. He also claimed that he paid all premiums on the policy after Annie’s death.

No estate was ever opened for Annie.

After Christopher died in November, 2014, Alfa issued a letter to Annie stating that her recent policy change request had been “closed as incomplete” due to irregularities in the form submitted.

Alfa interpled the policy proceeds per MRCP 22 in January, 2015, naming C.D. and his siblings as defendants, since they claimed to be beneficiaries. C.D. filed a counterclaim against Alfa. The chancellor ruled that Alfa had properly interpled the funds and dismissed C.D.’s counterclaim as moot. The chancellor also ruled that C.D. had no legal right or authority to change ownership or beneficiaries of the policy. C.D. appealed.

In Pulliam v. Alfa Ins. Co. and Nance, handed down January 30, 2018, the COA affirmed on the issue of C.D.’s power and authority to change ownership and beneficiaries. Judge Wilson wrote for a unanimous court:

¶23. “Generally, a policy of life insurance is a stand-alone contract whose purpose is to provide a sum of money to the named beneficiary upon the death of the listed insured.” Barber v. Balboa Life Ins., 747 So. 2d 863, 866 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999). The policy owner may select any individual as the policy’s beneficiary. Van Zandt v. Morris, 196 Miss. 374, 380, 17 So. 2d 435, 436 (1944). However, “[t]he policy owner’s rights largely end at the death of the insured. The policy beneficiary then has a right to the proceeds, which until death is only an expectancy. At the insured’s death the right to change the beneficiary no longer exists; the rights of the beneficiary have vested.” Evans v. Moore, 853 So. 2d 850, 855 (¶22) (Miss. Ct. App. 2003) (citations omitted).

¶24. As discussed above, the policy was issued to Annie as the owner and primary beneficiary, with Angela designated as the contingent beneficiary. The policy provides that “upon the death of the owner, ownership and control of the policy . . . shall pass to the estate of the deceased owner.” “The language and provisions of insurance policies are viewed as contracts and are subject to the same rules of interpretation as other contracts.” Hayne v. The Doctors Co., 145 So. 3d 1175, 1180 (¶12) (Miss. 2014). “Because insurance policies are creatures of contract, if the language is clear and unambiguous, then the language of the policy must be interpreted as written.” Id. Therefore, when Annie died ownership and control of the policy passed to her estate.

¶25. The chancellor concluded, and we agree, that C.D. and Otis had no authority to change the ownership of the policy or designate new beneficiaries. No estate was ever opened for Annie, nor was there ever any determination of her heirs. The only purported authority for C.D.’s and Otis’s action is an affidavit they provided to Alfa identifying themselves (and Willie Mae) as Annie’s heirs. This was insufficient to give them authority to change the ownership of a policy that, by its clear and unambiguous terms, was the property of Annie’s estate. Cf. Long v. McKinney, 897 So. 2d 160, 174 (¶60) (Miss. 2004) (holding that an “estate must, of course, be opened and administered through the chancery court” before claims may be pursued on its behalf); Delta Health Group Inc. v. Estate of Pope ex rel. Payne, 995 So. 2d 123, 125-26 (¶12) (Miss. 2008) (holding that when “no estate had been opened,” a party could not act as “the administrator of a non-existent estate”).

¶26. While there does not appear to be a Mississippi case addressing this precise issue, courts in other states have reached the logical conclusion that parties such as C.D. and Otis lack authority to make changes to the ownership or beneficiaries of a life insurance policy owned by a deceased relative. In Prudential Insurance Co. v. Stephens, 498 F. Supp. 155, 157 (E.D. Va. 1980), the court held that when the policy owner died,

title to the policy passed to her administrator whenever he may qualify as such, not to her husband . . . in his capacity as the sole heir of her estate. Although her husband was preferred by statute for appointment as administrator of her estate, he had to apply to qualify as administrator. Because he never qualified, title to the policy never passed to him, and any act of dominion he exercised over the policy, other than those acts specifically permitted by statute, had no legal effect. A change of the beneficiary of a life insurance policy does not fall within the . . . narrow categories of permitted acts.

Id. at 157. [Fn 1] (Emphasis supplied) (internal citation omitted).

[Fn 1] Like Virginia, Mississippi has certain statutes that permit a decedent’s heirs at law to take possession of certain categories of the decedent’s assets without opening and administering an estate. See, e.g., Miss. Code Ann. § 91-7-322 (Rev. 2013); see generally Robert A. Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi § 2.52 (3d ed. 2003). It is not apparent that any of these statutes would apply to the facts of this case or that C.D. complied with the necessary statutory requirements. Nor has C.D. argued that any of these statutes apply or authorized him to change the ownership and beneficiaries of the policy. Therefore, this opinion does not address the applicability of any such statutes.

¶27. Similarly, in [Ky. Cent. Life Ins.] v. Vollenweider, supra, the Missouri Court of Appeals held that the deceased policy owner’s husband lacked authority make changes to the policy, although he was the insured and was named as her executor in her will. See Vollenweider, 844 S.W.2d [460] at 462 [(Mo. Ct. App. 1992)]. The court held that the husband “never became the personal representative of [his deceased wife’s] estate because her estate was not opened until after [his] death,” and the husband lacked authority to make himself “the owner of the policy merely because he was named as personal representative under [her] will.” Id.

¶28. The result is the same in this case. Neither C.D. nor Otis opened an estate or took any other steps to obtain the authority necessary to act on behalf of Annie’s estate. Therefore, C.D. and Otis lacked the authority to make changes to the ownership or beneficiary designations of the subject life insurance policy, which became the property of Annie’s estate upon her death. Accordingly, Annie’s designation of Angela as the policy’s contingent beneficiary remained in effect at the time of Christopher’s death. And the chancery court correctly concluded that there was no genuine issue of material fact and that Angela was entitled to the proceeds of the policy.

The court reversed and remanded on the issue of dismissal of C.D.’s counterclaim. That’s an issue for another post.

As for that footnote, it’s worth your time to dig through the statutes to discover the various ways that heirs (usually called “successors” in the statutes) can transfer ownership of a decedent without going through probate. Bank and securities accounts and car titles are susceptible to such procedures. I have not researched whether life insurance may be changed via a similar statute. My uninformed guess is that the reason no such statute was pled or argued on appeal in this case is that there is none.

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